Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6). (115)I quote that section of James often enough with penitents; the tongue is a small organ but it gets us in all kinds of big trouble.
I first came online back in 1993 when I was a senior in college. Before long I discovered the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and its Catholic channels, as well as a Catholic listserv for which I promptly signed up. I was very innocent in those days, having been a Catholic for only about a year and with most of my knowledge of the Church having come from books, and I wasn't sure what to make of what I found, which was a lot of arguing and fighting. That's not to say that I didn't jump in myself when I knew that I was right about something ... because I had looked it up, thank you very much. I still have some of that attitude in me and it continues to get me in trouble. (More on that in the planned final post on Gaudete et exsultate, tentatively titled 'examination of conscience.')
So I think there's something to this admonition from Pope Francis. The immediacy of electronic communication can make it easy to say things without thinking. I think of the salutary warning in Father Z's comment section: Think BEFORE posting! Proof read. The option for anonymity can also bring temptations to be less responsible and charitable. When a discussion or argument gets to have more heat than light, there is the danger that positions will harden into polarities and nuances will be lost. If the platform itself does not lend itself to the presentation of deep and complex positions--I'm thinking here of Twitter, of course--these pitfalls are that much more present.
I'm not saying that apologetics and even polemic don't have a place on the web. These are charisms that have always been with the Church and have produced saints. So if someone has received these gifts for use in the online world, so be it. But there are some dangers to keep in mind.
One danger is forgetting to keep in mind that the devil is very attentive to anyone who is righteously angry or indignant, in order to take any opportunity to nourish disdain or hate for the enemy of the faith or of sound tradition who is being addressed. And the devil is quite happy (in the sense that one can speak of the devil's 'happiness,' given that he is supremely unhappy) to encourage anyone in being righteous or correct so long as one is righteous or correct so as to hate the person who isn't. Jesus Christ dies out of love for the unrighteous, and we must love them too if we want to call ourselves Christ-ians. As Jesus put it at the Last Supper,
"This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Another danger is scandalizing and confusing the world. If those outside the faith only see Christians fighting and being unable to agree on anything, how will they think the faith is anything solid? We like to accuse the world and its 'dictatorship of relativism' of the absurdity of denying absolute truth and point out the dangers and inhumanities this is leading us into, but how does this commitment to truth make sense if Christians don't seem to able to agree on anything? For better or for worse, being a Catholic online makes someone an ambassador for the faith in a way that was not available before the technology we have now. As we know from Uncle Ben (Parker), with great power comes great responsibility. And as Jesus assures us, someone who knows his master's will but fails to do it becomes ineligible for the lighter beating. (Luke 12:47-48) So let all of us Catholics online examine our consciences from time to time regarding our life on the web.
In this, as well as with regard to internet use generally, I often think of Thomas Merton's admonition about television:
I am certainly no judge of television, since I have never watched it. All I know is that there is a sufficiently general agreement, among men whose judgment I respect, that commercial television is degraded, meretricious and absurd. Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love. It would seem that television should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take interior life seriously. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 86.)Now that's from the early days of television, which is certainly far more vulgar now than it was then. And how much stronger the same warning could go for the internet. All of us could use a little less subjection to screens and more of the creative surrender of contemplation.